In 2012, a quarterback revolution seemed imminent in the NFL.
Seattle's Russell Wilson, Washington's Robert Griffin III, San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick and Carolina's Cam Newton -- two rookies and two second-year players -- were redefining the position with their mobility.
They took the league by storm almost immediately and earned Rookie of the Year awards (Newton, Griffin), Pro Bowl selections (Newton, Griffin, Wilson) and postseason berths (all four). We wondered how high the ceiling could be for the jaw-dropping, multidimensional quarterbacks who dazzled us with their skills.
Two years later, reality has set in. Now they're all learning the other side of being a franchise quarterback, the part that requires a thick skin and an innate ability to grind through relentless criticism and ever-changing defenses.
"These guys are learning that this is all part of the process," said Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon, who now works as a Seahawks radio broadcaster. "They all had success early, but you have to give credit to defensive coordinators as well. They have taken some things away from these players that they've been really good at doing."
It would be easy to lump Wilson, Kaepernick, Griffin and Newton together simply because of their skin color. Aside from the New York Jets' Geno Smith, who just regained his job, and Minnesota Vikings rookie Teddy Bridgewater, they are the only black starting quarterbacks in the NFL. But their commonality (and you could include Indianapolis' Andrew Luck, who appears to be immune to the same growing pains) has more to do with the collective impact they had on the game at such a young age. While other quarterbacks from their draft classes struggled early or failed to pack the requisite sizzle (such as Miami's Ryan Tannehill and Cincinnati's Andy Dalton), this quartet performed at levels that turned them into instant celebrities.
This year, that quartet has been defined by different images: Wilson leaning over a news conference podium in mid-October, one year removed from a Super Bowl win, trying to dismiss talk of a locker room controversy that centered around him and questions about a mediocre start to the season; Kaepernick's sullen eyes peering glumly through his helmet after he stumbled once again against the Seahawks; Newton launching so many errant passes for a 3-8-1 team that one NFC general manager said, "He might be two years away from being finished."
Then there's Griffin. Of all these players, he was arguably the most celebrated, the Heisman Trophy winner who cost the Redskins a bushel of draft picks. He'll now be holding a clipboard for the foreseeable future, after being demoted by head coach Jay Gruden. The early word is Washington still believes in Griffin's future. But the real question is whether the Redskins possibly can resuscitate the career of a man who openly feuded with his first coach (Mike Shanahan) and is seemingly regressing at warp speed.
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Although these players have had to cope with different circumstances, the one thing they've all encountered is the burden of intense expectations.
"That's a real issue, and everybody is culpable in this, We [in the media] told the country how great these quarterbacks are going to be, but Andrew Luck had the humility and the presence to be able to handle that because he grew up with it," said ESPN NFL analyst Trent Dilfer, referring to Luck's father, Oliver, who played four seasons in the NFL. "I've always said success is much harder to handle than failure. And you're seeing that with some of these players."
Former players such as Dilfer long have been accustomed to two familiar patterns when it comes to developing quarterbacks. Young players either played as rookies and took their lumps (Peyton Manning) or they sat and waited (Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers). Until this current group came on the scene, it was rare to see a quarterback who could both play immediately and thrive. Then we wound up with a handful who made that task look frighteningly simple.
Looking back, so many unpredictable forces aligned to create the hype that surrounded Wilson, Kaepernick, Griffin and Newton. Each player was blessed with a head coach who saw the unique opportunities his QB's mobility presented. Each player also had great timing. Defenses weren't familiar with the read-option, and each of these quarterbacks used it to his advantage.
Newton, the No. 1 pick of the 2011 draft, gained more than 700 rushing yards in each of his first two seasons. Griffin produced 815 rushing yards in 2012 as a rookie who sometimes even ran the triple-option. Kaepernick gashed Green Bay for 181 rushing yards in a January 2013 playoff game, while Wilson has been Seattle's second-leading rusher in all three of his seasons. They all provided great highlights, but now, that same mobility might be an impediment.
Although it's obvious how running quarterbacks can threaten defenses, what is often overlooked is how running can hinder their development as passers. The more a quarterback uses his feet to make plays, the fewer opportunities he has to hone the finer points of throwing the football from the pocket. The subtleties that make Tom Brady and Rodgers so dangerous -- such as feeling the pocket collapse and using their eyes to move safeties -- only come from repetition.
"In the NFL, passing is a decision where taking off and running is an instinctive thing," said quarterbacking guru George Whitfield, who trained Luck, Newton and Cleveland's Johnny Manziel before they were drafted. "If I throw the ball 300 or 400 times a year in college, that requires a decision that I have to take accountability for."
Added Dilfer: "When you've been the biggest, baddest guy in high school, you can probably take about half the reps you get and turn them into athletic running plays. I can understand that when you're trying to win games at that level. When you're trying to play quarterback in the NFL, you have to play with discipline and not bolt. As Steve Young says, running should be the last option for a quarterback. But for some players, it's become the second option."
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When it comes to assessing problems, the consensus among most sources interviewed for this story was that Wilson and Kaepernick fall into one category (still promising), while Newton and Griffin belong in another (questions and doubts).
Griffin is in the worst shape. Since he tore the ACL and MCL in his right knee in a playoff loss to Seattle in his rookie season -- and sustained a dislocated left ankle earlier this year -- he hasn't displayed the electric mobility that made him so dangerous in his first year. Without that explosiveness, he's had to rely more on passing skills that have eroded to the point that Griffin has been sacked 20 times and has committed five turnovers (three interceptions) in five starts this season.
Griffin's problems came to a head during the past month, as he faltered in three consecutive losses and drew the ire of Gruden after a 27-7 loss to Tampa Bay on Nov. 16. Gruden said Griffin had "some fundamental flaws" and pointed out the quarterback "took three-step drops when he should have taken five" and "read the wrong side of the field a couple times."
Said the NFC general manager: "A couple years ago, we were saying that running your quarterback was a good thing. I'm not so sure it's a good thing today. When I look at RG III, I see a player who holds the ball too long because he doesn't know what he's looking at. He's a shell of himself."
The experts who've watched Newton, who underwent offseason ankle surgery and lost wide receiver Steve Smith (released) and left tackle Jordan Gross (retirement), see a quarterback who also has suffered because of the pounding he's absorbed over four seasons. He currently has the lowest QBR of his career (47.7) to go with 13 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
"I've told some friends that it almost looks like he's playing with post-traumatic stress disorder," Whitfield said. "He's been hit so much that even when he does have time to throw, he's fading away some. He looks off track."
Newton's mobility has suffered, too. Even having missed the season opener, he's on pace for a career high in sacks and career low in rushing yards per game. Said one NFC defensive coordinator: "Cam has always been at his best when he's scrambling around. He doesn't do much of that anymore, and he wasn't an accurate passer to begin with. Now that Steve Smith is gone, he can't push the ball downfield as much, so he has to fit the ball into tight spots. His problem is he throws a 6-yard pass with the same velocity as a 60-yard pass."
The universal knock on Kaepernick is that he, too, never acquired the necessary touch to take the next step in his development. That fact was most glaring in a 19-3 loss to Seattle on Thanksgiving. Kaepernick passed for only 121 yards and threw two interceptions to Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, in part because he couldn't place the ball in a tight window for his receiver to make a play.
Kaepernick also hasn't elevated his game in ways one might expect, given that the 49ers added veterans Stevie Johnson and Brandon Lloyd to a receiving corps that already had Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis.
"It seemed like this year was about [49ers offensive coordinator] Greg Roman opening up the offense and showing what Kaepernick could do," said Fox analyst and former NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb. "And they got away from what works best for them -- the running game and play-action. It's like they wanted to show how much Kaepernick has grown, and he's struggled with that."
Said Dilfer, "I'm starting to think Kap might end up being a more physical version of Randall Cunningham. He's really good at sticking his foot in the ground and throwing on rhythm and the second-reaction stuff [scrambling]. Where he hasn't developed is with the stuff in between those two areas. There are a lot of things that come with playing quarterback, such as manipulating defenses, sliding in the pocket, going through progressions. He's just not good at those things."
Unlike his peers, Wilson hasn't faced the same level of scrutiny on the field. Helping the Seahawks to a win over Denver in Super Bowl XLVIII only added to a legacy that has been growing since he joined the franchise as a third-round pick in 2012. Even some inconsistent play earlier this year didn't stop one AFC scout from saying, "You can see that he's still going in the right direction. The other guys we're talking about are still close to being the same players they were as rookies."
Still, Wilson found himself in the midst of a controversy in October. After Seattle traded wide receiver Percy Harvin to the Jets, a Bleacher Report story claimed some teammates didn't think Wilson was "black enough." ESPN reported the Seahawks' locker room was fracturing into players who liked Wilson and those who didn't. Suddenly, the narrative on Wilson flipped from him being a lovable, overachieving underdog to him being a coddled star who was too cozy with management, too overexposed with endorsements and too lacking in the requisite street cred.
When Moon spoke to Wilson immediately after those stories broke, he could sense Wilson's disappointment, even though Wilson tried to laugh off the question of what "black enough" actually meant. Moon had warned Wilson about what might happen if he didn't make a conscious effort to spend ample time with his teammates.
"I told him when he came into the league that he needed to give of himself and get to know his teammates," Moon said. "I could see that he was so regimented with his time -- from going to Children's Mercy [Hospital] on his off days to preparing for games, and he was still married then -- that he was always going to be busy. Most guys don't understand all the things a quarterback has to do during the week, but they still want to know who you are."
Wilson's situation has seemingly been resolved. Harvin was removed from the equation, and the Seahawks remain committed to the ball-control system that won them a championship. In many ways, Seattle is sticking with the same formula that has benefited Kaepernick, Griffin and Newton. It's no coincidence those three played their best football when they were blessed with dominant rushing attacks and -- in the cases of Kaepernick and Newton -- elite defenses.
It's going to be difficult for these players to improve during the season, when the focus is on specific opponents and game plans, not repairing fundamental flaws. For Griffin and Newton, the challenge of fixing their issues is more daunting. Even with the chance to work on their games in the offseason, they still might be limited by the wear and tear on their bodies.
Said Dilfer: "When teams run their quarterbacks a lot, you're talking about a player who might have a 14-year career potentially ending up with a six- to eight-year career. Because once that player gets to a point where he wants to [become a pocket passer], his body is going to break down. You're only going to be as good as your body will allow."
Griffin and Newton also face uncertain contract situations with their teams, which already have invested plenty in them.
Since Kaepernick already has received a new deal and Wilson is likely to score a fat extension in the near future, those aren't questions they will face. But they should be able to relate to their multidimensional peers this season. They've all thrilled us with their talents and potential in a short time. Now they're all learning about the less enjoyable aspects of their position.
The days of wondering how great they all can be are ending. Now it's a question of who's best suited to deal with life after the honeymoon.
"Being a quarterback in the NFL is a lot like being a virus," Whitfield said. "You have to constantly evolve into the next thing. You can't come out and say, 'I did this last year, so I'll be able to keep doing it.' Look at Eli Manning. He won two Super Bowls, and he still struggles. All these guys are learning that being in the league means finding a way to mutate into something [better] than what you once were."